Monday, October 6, 2014


Periplus, a sailor's 2000-years-old account of the Arabian Sea, had eluded me for years; I found it finally in the Stanford library. I was happy to note the mention of Syrastrênê, now called Saurashtra (Kathiawar of my childhood). Its specialities such as bdellium, costus, and lykian are no longer known; it is difficult to believe today that Syrastreans were fond of Arabian wine then. Oh, those happy times! This was published in Business Standard of 14 August 2000.


For a long time I have been looking for this piece of writing in Greek, better known as the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. Recently I came across a superb translation by Lionel Casson (The Periplus Maris Erythraei, Princeton University Press 1989). The Periplus was written by an unknown sailor around 30 AD. The Erythraean Sea means the Red Sea; but at that time it denoted what is now known as the Arabian Sea. The Periplus is really a guide in an era when there were no devices to estimate the location of a boat on the sea. As a result, voyages across the open sea were virtually unknown; seamen travelled by hugging the shore. But doing so greatly increased the distance between places. Also, ships lost their way and drifted into the open sea. When they did, their captain would steer in a direction in which he expected to find land. But when he found it, he had to decide where he was. Sometimes he could do it from landmarks such as mountain peaks. But all coasts were not endowed with landmarks. And some were dangerous to approach because of hostile tribes. A good sailor could tell where he was by looking at other tell-tale signs on the sea itself.
The Periplus is a short document of about 6000 words divided into 66 paragraphs. It starts at the ports of Myos Hornos and Berenice. Myos Hornos, the Mussel harbour, is supposed to have been close to the present Abu Sha’r in Egypt. Berenice was a port city founded by Ptolemy Philadelphus in the third century BC; its ruins are close to the Cape of Ras Banas. Then the Periplus guides the reader down the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. It gives some scant details of the east African coast down to Zanzibar, and turns northwards. Its author passes the coast of Oman in some hurry; in the Kalaios isles, now known as Jazair Daimaniyat islands, dwelt “rascals who do not do much looking during the daytime” – that is, pirates who roamed the seas at night. There was an Omana in his time, but it was somewhere on the coast of Baluchistan or Iran, and not in the Arabian peninsula. This is where the author first mentions Indians: “Customarily the merchants of Barygaza (Broach) deal with it, sending out big vessels to both of Persis’s ports of trade [Apologos and Omana], with supplies of copper, teakwood, and beams, saplings and logs of sissoo and ebony…”
Sailing east from Omana the sailor comes to Skythia as the Greeks called Sind; “through it flows the Sinthos River, mightiest of the rivers along the Erythraean Sea and emptying so great an amount of water into the sea that far off, before you reach land, its light-coloured water meets you out at sea.”  Its main port, Barbarikon, has not been located; it offered costus (Kushtha, a fragrant root to be found in Kashmir), lykion (a medicinal wood extract), nard (a fragrant medicinal herb), turquoise, lapis lazuli, indigo, Chinese cloth, yarn and pelt.
Sailing east from Barbarikon, the sailors came to some treacherous shallows where undercurrents could suck ships into a shallow bay and run them aground. This was Eirinon, now known as the Rann of Kutch. The way for sailors to avoid it was to recognize its vicinity from the “snakes, huge and black, that emerge to meet them”. Those who survived these treacherous waters sailed south down to Syrastrênê, the coastal region of Aberia. Syrastrênê is obviously Saurashtra. Aberia is the land of the Abhirs. Known today as the Ahirs, they were migrants from the northwest who were new settlers in this area. “The region, very fertile, produces grain, rice, sesame oil, ghee, cotton, and the Indian cloths made from it, those of ordinary quality. There are a great many herds of cattle, and the men are of very great size and dark skin colour.”
Rounding Syrastrênê, the sailors came to Barygaza or Broach. The writer describes the difficulty of getting to Broach: “All over India there are large numbers of rivers with extreme ebb-and-flood tides that at the time of the new moon and the full moon last for up to three days, diminishing during the intervals. They are much more extreme in the area around Barygaza than elsewhere. Here suddenly the sea floor becomes visible, and certain parts along the coast, which a short while ago had ships sailing over them, at times become dry land, and the rivers, because of the inrush at flood tide of a whole concentrated mass of seawater, are driven headlong upstream against the natural direction of their flow for a good many stades…The very mouth of the river on which Barygaza stands is hard to find because the land is low and nothing is clearly visible even from nearby. And, even if you find the mouth, it is hard to negotiate because of the shoals in the river round it. For this reason local fishermen in the king’s service come out with crews and long ships, the kind called trappage and kotymba, to the entrance as far as Syrastrênê to meet vessels and guide them up to Barygaza.” The entrance into Narmada continues to be as difficult as it was 2000 years ago; that is why, once the British developed Bombay, Broach lost its position as a port.
Broach exported nard, costus, bdellium, ivory, onyx, agate, lykion, cotton cloth, Chinese cloth [silk], molochinon cloth, and long pepper. It was a good market for Italian, Laodician and Arabian wine, copper, tin, lead, coral, peridot [topaz], printed cloth, multicoloured eighteen-inch-wide girdles, yellow sweet clover, raw glass, realgar [red arsenic sulphide, used as pigment and medicine], antimony sulphide [a cosmetic and cure for sores], and Roman currency.  Glass was imported because India did not make any. Traders had to give presents to the king consisting of silverware, slave musicians and beautiful girls for concubinage.
South of Barygaza was Dachinabades [Dakshinapradesh] whose major cities were Paithana and Tagara; the latter is identified as Ter in Maharashtra. The writer lists a string of ports and landmarks down to Komar [Cape Comorin] – “men who wish to lead a holy life for the rest of their days remain there celibate”. Beyond Komar was Kolchoi, where convicts were made to dive for pearls, and then Ceylon. Its name had then been changed from Taprobanê to Palaisimundu; apparently the name-changing game, such a favourite of our paper patriots, was not unknown then. Its northern part was “civilized”, and produced pearls, gems, cotton garments and tortoise shell.

Once he rounds Cape Comorin, our sailor’s knowledge becomes sporadic. He mentions Ganges “the greatest of all the rivers in India, which has a rise and fall like the Nile”. He also mentions “a very great inland city called Thina [China].” But there were also “numerous barbaric peoples, among whom are the Kirradai, a race of wild men with flattened noses, and another people, the Bargysoi, and the Horse Faces, who are said to be cannibals.” I will leave it to the readers to guess who these people were.